Ephesus, The Crown Jewel of Asia
At the beginning of God's message to the Christians living in the prominent city of Ephesus, the apostle John offered words of praise: "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance, You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary" (Rev. 2:2-3). These words are remarkable when one considers how challenging it must have been for the early Christians to live and minister in Ephesus. The ruins of this city enable us to better understand the faith of the early Christians who lived there, and help us discover what gave them the strength to testify of Christ so diligently in such an unlikely place.
The port city of Ephesus, located on what is now the western coast of Turkey, was the crown jewel of Asia Minor. It had the population of nearly 250,000 people and was home to more than twenty pagan temples. Artistic beauty, cultural learning, erotic pagan worship, world trade, criminal activity, and sorcery flourished amidst great wealth. As residents of one of the most sophisticated cities of the Roman Empire, the Ephesians enjoyed such luxuries as running water, indoor toilets, fountains, gardens surrounded by magnificent columns, colonnaded streets paved with marble, gymnasiums and baths, a library, and a theater that could seat an estimated twenty-five thousand people.
Artemis of the Ephesians
At the heart of the city's life and economy was the worship of Artemis, the ancient fertility goddess. The temple dedicated to Artemis was 450 feet long, 220 feet wide, had more than 120 columns sixty feet high and was one of the seven wonders of the entire world.
Because Artemis was considered to be so powerful and protective of her temple, people from all over the world deposited money there, which in turn was loaned out at a high rate of interest. Thus the Ephesians became extremely wealthy and naturally were very protective of the goddess who had made them successful, powerful, and rich.
Paul Begins to Teach
Into this city, at the end of his second missionary journey (and also during his third journey), came the apostle Paul. At first he went to the local synagogue, and using the Torah, the prophets, and the life of Jesus the Messiah, he began to teach the Ephesians about the kingdom of God and how they were supposed to live. After several months, he went to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, where every day for two years he spoke the good news of Jesus (Acts 19:9-10). Amazingly, "all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord." Most likely, Paul didn't undermine or put down the pagan Ephesians and their beliefs. Rather, he simply and unashamedly spoke God's powerful truth and allowed its implications to impact people.
The Implications of God's Truth
Of course, the implications of Paul's teaching were huge. The Ephesians realized that if what Paul and other Christians shared was indeed the truth, then Artemis and the other gods of Ephesus were worthless and the city's entire belief system, economy, and lifestyle could collapse. As a result, Paul and other Christians in Ephesus began to face intense opposition. Unless they bore the "mark" of pagan beliefs by living out those beliefs in daily life, Christians were viewed as second-class citizens. They were hated and severely persecuted.
The people's fervor to defend their gods is evident in the accusations of an idol maker named Demetrius, who spread a rumor that Paul believed "that manmade gods were no gods at all" (Acts 19:26). In response, a huge crowd of Artemis worshipers rushed into the theater and chanted, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" for about two hours. Finally, fearing the Roman soldiers response to a riot, the people calmed down and Paul escaped with his life.
Audio: It's All A Fraud
Clearly the implications of the truth Paul had spoken so lovingly, so clearly, and so fearlessly had become offensive to unbelievers. Yet the gospel message continued to spread widely as a result of the Christians' bold persistence.
Who is Lord and God?
According to tradition, the apostle John also came to Ephesus in approximately AD 70. At that time, John was writing or would soon write the book of Revelation, which includes the message to the church at Ephesus mentioned earlier. By this time, the Roman Emperor Domitian had the upper hand in attracting the religious loyalties of the Ephesians.
Demanding that people worship him as a god, Domitian insisted on being called "Lord" and "God" by everyone, including his wife. The Ephesians built huge structures dedicated to Domitian, including a prominent temple designed to be the world center of Domitian worship. One of its features was a twenty-seven-foot-tall statue of Domitian. Anyone approaching the city by sea or by land could see the temple and its statue and know that the Ephesians as a whole believed Domitian to be king of the gods. Along the city streets, altars reminded the people of Domitian's lordship and their allegiance to him. Once a year, the people had to say publicly in front of the altar, "Caesar is Lord." Anyone who didn't recognize Domitian?s lordship, including no doubt the early Christians who acknowledged the lordship of God alone, was subject to death.
A legacy of Christian Love
It took passionate commitment and courage for the early Christians to stand up for their beliefs in the face of this "mark of the beast." Despite serious persecution, which included the denial to conduct business in the markets and obtain water from public fountains, the Christians of Ephesus publicly spoke out for Jesus and lived for him in a loving way. They endured great hardships for Jesus and never became weary of living for him.
Where did they get the courage and passion to proclaim the gospel in Ephesus? One reason they could work tirelessly for Christ is because of the mutual love and support they demonstrated to one another. When John wrote, "You have forsaken your first love" (Rev. 2:4), he was really challenging them to love each other with the love they first had for each other,the love of Jesus. In order to live consistently and publicly for Jesus, they needed to believe in him and care about each other.
The Pollio Fountain, located in Domitian's Square, was built to remind the Ephesians that the Emperor Domitian was their lord of lords, king of kings, and provider of life. In a similar way, the loving community of Christians was (and still is) to stand in the midst of culture and point people towards God, the true Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and source of life.
A paving stone was unearthed by archaeologists into which symbols of the early church the fish symbol and a cross, had been carved. Somewhere in Ephesus, a person, family, or perhaps an entire community of believers wanted passerby to know, in quiet and unobtrusive way, that Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, Savior, was Lord of Lords and King of Kings. How will we testify to our world that Jesus is our Lord or Lords and King of Kings?